Laura Depta, April 26, 2019
"Because I knew you, I have been changed for good." These are lyrics to "For Good" from the Broadway musical "Wicked."
The song, and its underlying theme of unlikely friendship, is the inspiration for the For Good Troupe.
"It's a really touching song about people who might not have realized that they would be friends really discovering each other, and it's kind of the whole point of the troupe," says Krista Wilkinson, the group's director.
Wilkinson, a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State University, founded the troupe in 2012. Sponsored by the Centre Region Down Syndrome Society, it is a musical theater group comprised of individuals with Down syndrome and peers from the community, including siblings, local middle and high schoolers and Penn State students.
Wilkinson works in what is more commonly known as speech pathology and describes her professional area as "supporting positive communication outcomes in individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities."
In the course of her work, she had often heard families of children with Down syndrome, as well as individuals with Down syndrome themselves, express a desire for more opportunities for stage performance.
"When [individuals with Down syndrome] were in school, they oftentimes could be in the school play, although they didn't tend to have the leading role," Wilkinson explains. "But once they graduated from high school, the opportunities were difficult to come by."
When her own two children, who do not have developmental disabilities, became interested in musical theater, Wilkinson moved to make the idea a reality. She started the For Good Troupe to give young people with Down syndrome and their peers a mutually beneficial opportunity to perform together.
"I began to appreciate, on a personal level, the many benefits of musical theater, and how it helps with confidence, how it helps with reading, how it helps with social and friendships," says Wilkinson. "It became, 'Wow, we really should make this opportunity happen.'"
The For Good Troupe started with 10 individuals with Down syndrome and five peers. Those numbers have grown to just over 20 and about 12, respectively. The group originated with teenagers and young adults, but Wilkinson has since also added a Beginnings Troupe geared toward younger children or those without much stage experience.
The troupes rehearse every Saturday throughout the spring semester, and perform shows in both the fall and spring. The performances are essentially revues, including several songs around a chosen theme rather than a single show. The Beginnings Troupe typically performs familiar, fun, upbeat songs, while the For Good Troupe performs showtunes and the occasional pop song.
"The atmosphere is awesome," says Wilkinson. "We of course rehearse all semester, but it's funny to see how everyone steps up when there's an audience. They're behind the curtain and they're all chatting with each other at the rehearsals, but then once there's an audience out there, now it's serious."
The Penn State students play a variety of crucial roles, including choreographers, stage hands, a curtain operator and, recently, sign language interpreters. Wilkinson is proud of their commitment, and that of all the volunteers who show up to rehearsal every Saturday.
"We just have such a dedicated group," says Wilkinson. "So I'm just really proud of that whole dynamic, of people who are here together to do something important and valuable."
The fun doesn't end with the spring performance. The For Good Troupe often performs by invitation at other events, including the Special Olympics opening ceremony, charity galas and an annual dance workshop at Penn State.
"One of the things I've seen with the For Good Troupe, just like I saw with my own children, is the incredible, positive things that happen when you have someone up on a stage," says Wilkinson